By Tine Hoof, Tim Surma, Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
This blog is the last in a series of eight blogs, originally written in Dutch by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma & Paul Kirschner, and published on excel.thomasmore.be.
In 2015, Richard Mayer and Logan Fiorella published their book ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ describing eight generative learning strategies. They’re called generative (also productive) because they allow/force learners to ‘remould’ the subject matter and based on that, create their own output, such as a summary or a drawing. In other words, as a learner, you generate/produce something yourself based on and that goes further than what you’ve learned. In addition to imagining, Mayer and Fiorella also discuss summarising, drawing, mapping, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting.
Each strategy prompts learners to apply Mayer’s Selection, Organising, and Integrating (SOI) memory model. These strategies ensure that the learner engages with the new subject matter in a ‘cognitively active’ manner. In the first blog (on summarising) you can read more about why this is important when studying.
What is enacting as a productive learning strategy?
Enacting as a productive learning strategy involves learners making movements and/or gestures related to certain information while learning or practising. Think of connecting body and mind, in a way.
Think of children who listen to a story and then enact the actions from the story with puppets.
Or, for example, learners who follow the movements in the digestive system with their finger in a diagram or photo in a book. Or learners who support imaginary rotations of mathematical spatial figures with hand gestures that simulate the manipulation of those objects. In all three of these situations, the learners are connecting what they’ve heard, seen, or read with their own movements in space.
Another example is a geography lesson on plate tectonics where learners illustrate how plates slide towards and collide with each other during convergent plate movements, using hand movements. This video shows two students supporting the teacher’s explanation of plate tectonics with hand gestures. They move their hands together to represent how two convergent tectonic plates slide toward each other. When their hands touch, they move them upwards to represent how mountains are formed. Here’s another video that also shows how hand gestures can support the teacher’s explanation.
Enacting is quite a unique productive learning strategy because, in addition to cognitive activity, it also requires physical activity from the learner. After all, when learners use this strategy, they make objects move or act out something, such as in the plate tectonics example. However, the aim of the movement, gesture, or enacting is to support cognitive activity (learning). The physical activity is thus ‘at the service’ of the cognitive activity.
Though it’s not the theme of this blog, the idea of enacting is close what is called embodied cognition.
“Embodied cognition is an approach to cognition that has roots in motor behavior. This approach emphasizes that cognition typically involves acting with a physical body on an environment in which that body is immersed. The approach of embodied cognition postulates that understanding cognitive processes entails understanding their close link to the motor surfaces that may generate action and to the sensory surfaces that provide sensory signals about the environment.”
Why does enacting work?
Similar to the other productive learning strategies we discussed previously in the series, enacting encourages learners to go through three cognitive processes. First, they select those ideas or concepts of the to-be-learned subject matter that they want to think about and where they deem gestures or movement to be useful. They then select the most relevant movements or gestures to support that new subject matter. They try to use them to organise the learning material and attach meaning to it by linking it to their prior knowledge. This way, the new knowledge can be better integrated into the existing knowledge schemes.
The existing research on enacting provides us with a number of possible explanations on why this productive learning strategy works. One explanation is that the use of relevant gestures and movements can reduce cognitive load, leaving more space in working memory to think about the relevant subject matter. For example, when learners follow text with their finger when studying a scheme, it increases their focus on what they need to know.
In addition, the combination of words and gestures/movements can create stronger connections in long-term memory and that way can lead to more profound learning (i.e., multiple memory traces are created that can then also be retrieved). Enacting helps to make an abstract concept more concrete. For example, for young children it can be difficult to imagine the interaction between different characters in a story, but using puppets to play out the story can make this easier. In fact, the reverse also applies.
Moving physical objects, for example in arithmetic instruction, can also help children to gradually transition from concrete objects to a more abstract representation of numbers (concreteness fading). A teacher might ask learners to move marbles or sticks as they calculate (“How many marbles do you have? Three, right! Take another two. How many do you have now?”). Gradually, those concrete objects can be replaced by more abstract examples (3 + 2 = 5).
Finally, recent studies (Pilegard & Fiorella, 2021) also show that the use of gestures by teachers supports learning, especially deictic and iconic gestures. As a teacher, you use deictic gestures to draw attention to important information by pointing at it. Iconic gestures illustrate how objects change size or shape. In this way, the teacher enriches their words with relevant gestures.
How does enacting work?
So far, we’ve seen that enacting as a productive learning strategy includes both moving physical objects as well as moving oneself. These movements can be big (think of acting out a storyline), or they can be smaller gestures and hand movements (which we as humans often use spontaneously). As it turns out, we can actually infer the implicit knowledge that learners have from these smaller gestures quite well.
In a study of 3rd and 4th graders, the students were presented with six comparisons (exercises of the type 6 + 3 + 7 = ___ + 7). They tried to solve them as best they could, while reasoning out loud. The students received no feedback. They were filmed as they solved the exercises, so that the explanation and gestures they used spontaneously could be captured and mapped. Only the students who could not solve any of the six exercises correctly, participated in the follow-up experiment. Within this group, the researchers also identified the students who had spontaneously used gestures. In the follow-up experiment, the students who spontaneously enacted were allocated equally to three conditions.
All students solved six new exercises of the same type (eg., 5 + 3 + 4 = ___ + 4). The three conditions were as follows:
- Group 1 was instructed to use their hands while explaining aloud.
- Group 2 was instructed to keep their hands still while explaining aloud.
- Group 3 received no specific instruction on how to use their hands, they were only instructed to explain their thinking aloud.
Again, the students were filmed. In this way, the researchers could compare the solution strategies that the students articulated (explicit knowledge, such as “Both parts of the equations must be the same”) with any additional solution strategies that they indicated through gestures (implicit knowledge, such as moving the flat hand from the left of the equation to the right). This table shows the number of examples of (correct and incorrect) solution strategies that the students used, both through words and gestures.
Now the results:
Group 1, the group where students were encouraged to also use gestures when expressing their thinking, used significantly more new, correct solution strategies than the students from the other groups, especially through gestures. Even the students who didn’t spontaneously use gestures in the first phase did so when explicitly asked to do so, and so they came up with correct solution strategies more often.
What this research suggests, is that stimulating students to use gestures while verbalising what they’re thinking aloud can ensure that they use new strategies that they cannot (yet) articulate. Of course, you can also model these movements as a teacher, something that didn’t happen in the aforementioned experiment.
In the experiment, the students had to come up with gestures to support their thinking themselves. As a teacher, you can of course also consciously model these gestures during your instruction. That way, you avoid students spending too much attention on choosing certain movements or gestures and might prevent misconceptions arising. Also note that the use of these subtle gestures is something that teachers (or rather, we humans in general) use spontaneously. By paying more explicit attention to certain gestures, teachers can encourage and stimulate learning in an accessible way.
Finally, enacting can also be combined with other productive learning strategies, such as imagining (“Remember the motion of convergent tectonic plates? We’ve enacted it.”) or self-explaining (“How are mountains formed? Reason out loud and use your hands to support your explanation.”)
Fiorella and Mayer (2015) make a number of important remarks about research on enacting, especially about the different conditions that are compared with each other in existing studies.
When we look at the research, it often compares learners who perform task-related movements while processing the subject matter with learners who are only offered the subject matter (and therefore don’t perform the movements). More research needs to be carried out, for example, with students actively involved with the materials, but not in a generative/enactive way. In addition, the impact of this productive learning strategy has mainly been studied in younger children, for example to better understand verbal information (think of acting out storylines) or to make abstract concepts more concrete (think of solving mathematical exercises with math bars). More research needs to be carried out with older students and even adults. Finally, Fiorella and Mayer emphasise that this productive learning strategy is especially suitable for students who already have domain-specific prior knowledge and when teachers guide their students in using the strategy. How enacting can affect the acquisition of this foundational knowledge needs to be carried out.
Fiorella and Mayer (2015) refer to 49 studies that examined enacting as a generative learning strategy. In 36 of these studies, the strategy had a positive effect. This means that the scientific basis for this productive learning strategy is less strong than for other productive learning strategies, such as self-explaining or self-testing.
PS. As we mentioned earlier, this is the last blog in our 8-part series on productive learning strategies. We will shortly post a blog where you can find links to all 8 blogs on productive learning strategies in one place.
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 Deictic gestures included pointing, showing, giving, and reaching, or some combination of these gestures.
 Iconic gestures have a physical resemblance to what it stands for, such as using your thumb and forefinger very close together to relate that something is very small or spreading your arms to signify that something is very large..